It's been a long time since I got back from Cuba but I thought I would share my photos and thoughts anyway.
When my friends invited me to Cuba on a quick 6-day excursion I jumped at the opportunity [until more recently, it was a little tricky to travel to Cuba as a US-citizen.] I booked my flight three days before my trip and barely had any time to prep. I had so many questions; What if my visa gets denied? Do I need travel health insurance? I really can't use any of my credit cards while I’m there?
I wasn’t sure what to expect on this trip. This was the first time I was traveling to a country that once had “closed borders” to US-citizens. I did very little research prior to my trip but one particular statement stuck out in my mind. As I was browsing forums one contributor said,
“Millions of Americans have already visited Cuba, but everyone arriving this week is under the illusion that he/she is the first one to discover Cuba and the last one to see it before it is no longer an independent country.”
That could not be truer. I had this romanticized image of Cuba in my head. And from all the photos I saw on the internet, who wouldn’t? Cuba was stuck in time; old colonial buildings, cars from the 1940’s-50’s, old men smoking cigars, and a seemingly nostalgic energy. Don’t get me wrong, Cuba was absolutely amazing and we took advantage of all the stereotypical highlights (I’m sure some of my photos will wind up on Pinterest for travel inspiration.) But being there was also an education. Going to Cuba wasn’t just about vacationing but understanding a country, once stuck in time, now changing rapidly.
WHAT YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CUBA
Cuba’s borders are not opened to Americans for “tourism”. Although many other countries are allowed to travel to Cuba for tourism, US-citizens must apply for a visa under 12 different categories. The visa process is no longer strict and airlines typically have a special check-in counter accommodating to Havana-bound travelers. I decided my main purpose for travel was “people-to-people” contact (or “educational activities”) and made a huge effort to fulfill those requirements.
I encourage anyone who wants to travel to Cuba to really consider the reason they want to go. I met quite a few Americans who were clearly “tourists” and it seemed like such a waste (and a little embarrassing to be honest.) If you are familiar with US-Cuban history and relations you will understand why. We have an opportunity, as Americans, to gain perspective, learn, and hopefully give back to the Cuban people in some way. It is a long-sighted privilege that exceeds a stereotypical holiday filled with rum, cigars, and old cars. And although we enjoyed your typical tourist experiences, my friends and I still made a huge effort to put our visas to good use.
Since 1998 (when Americans could get to Cuba via Mexico or Canada) Most Cubans are taking opportunity of the changes made in government (even more so) within the last couple years (family owned restaurants, Airbnb, etc.) all targeted towards tourism. Now that the borders have opened for Americans the locals are taking advantage of the opportunity. Unfortunately, Cubans are still not allowed to travel to the United States.
Bring cash. Your debit card and/or credit card won’t work if you are low on funds. Cash is king in Cuba. The Cuban Pesos is a closed currency so you can only exchange it once you are in the country. I suggest bringing more than enough cash for your trip! I spent around $700 for 6 days (including lodging, transportation, food, etc.)
Note: 1 USD is the equivalent to 1 CUC but due to taxes and fees the US dollar is worth less (about .87 while we were there.) And don’t think everything in Cuba is cheap. Even though their rum and food is incredibly affordable, riding taxi’s and/or paying for your lodging can add up! Hailing a taxi in New York was cheaper than taxi’s in Havana. And the water is not safe to drink so you’re looking at spending 2-4CUC per water bottle!
You should speak a little Spanish. Luckily for me, my friend Laura is fluent in Spanish. Very little Cubans speak fluent English except for a few who work in tourism. Your English will only get you so far. It was especially useful as we interacted with locals and tried to understand their history and culture.
Support local. If you are looking for a place to stay or restaurant to eat at, always choose local (versus government-run establishments.) This was common advice from all the Cubans we met. Government hotels and restaurants are ridiculously overpriced and the local Cuban economy is ever-growing. Most Cubans homes are open for lodging and there are constantly new family- run restaurants popping up. You can usually book an Airbnb in advanced but it will not work while you are in Cuba. If you are in a real bind, just look for the licensed homes with the symbol “ARRENDADOR DIVISA”. We didn’t have a place booked for our last few nights in Havana and were tempted to stay at a government hotel (until we found out it was 485 CUC/night.) Ironically, the bellhop at the hotel suggested a lovely family to stay with for 35 CUC/night instead.
Also, it is really common for Cubans to use their home as their storefront. Most clear out their living room and fill it with handmade goods during the day. We stopped at an one older gentleman’s well-curated hat shop and bought a few hats his wife made in-house (literary.)
What’s the deal with all the old cars? If you are familiar with the 1960 embargo with the United States, then you know why vintage American cars are still prevalent in Cuba. And although there are still plenty of 1950’s Chevrolets used as everyday drivers, a lot of the vintage cars you see now are used for tourism. That’s how we got to cruise in a pink 1950 Chevrolet convertible (for 50 CUCs, mind you.) And even though we glamorize the vintage cars, it is a sign that Cuba lacked resources, modern development, and we should recognize that. I also want to point out that there are plenty of other modern day vehicles on the road including buses and cars. So don’t get your hopes up and think the only cars on the road are Chevy’s, Buicks, and Studebakers (because I did.)
Understanding the economy. All Cubans are provided with free healthcare and education by the government. Some families are even grandfathered into homes given by the government after the Castro revolution (most of the local housing we saw were dilapidated, in constant need of repair, and 3-4 or more generations living in one household.) They are also given monthly ration cards with nominal items. Most industries are owned and operated by the Cuban government (although self-employment has become a huge means of income for Cubans). And although Cuba is considered upper-middle-income and one of the largest economies in Central America and the Caribbean, the average wage in Cuba is about 20 CUC per month (equivalent to $20 USD) due to high taxes. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for extra expenses. But the tourism industry has provided an interesting twist in job value and income levels. On average, a doctor gets about 50 CUC a month while taxi drivers (cue 1950’s Chevy convertible) arguably make the most money in Havana.
There is a lack of development in Cuba due mostly to the oppression forced by the US Embargo.
And don’t be fooled by the beautifully restored colonial buildings in all the photos. That makes up a very small section of Havana’s most touristic areas. Most buildings (where locals live and work) are in a state of decay and usually crammed with 3 or more generations of family members. Most Cubans living conditions would be considered unlivable for American standards.
But from my experience in Havana and Trinidad, there was little to no begging, no homelessness, and the streets were relatively clean. There is something to be said about that.
Cubans know how to cruise. Walk down any street, in any town and you’ll see people hanging out on their doorsteps or balconies, just people watching. I guess there isn’t much else to do! The internet is usually very slow and expensive. All internet and wifi hotspots are government-run (and illegal to have in private homes) and you must be in a particular area to access it.
It feels really safe. Cubans are some of the friendliest people I’ve met. They are very helpful and aside from some pesky taxi drivers, most of them don’t haggle you. I spent two days in Havana on my own and never once felt threatened or unsafe. I even walked down the Malcón late at night and didn’t have any problems.
Note: It is very common for men to cat-call women in Cuba. It was some of the most cat-calling I’ve ever had. But I never felt threatened or particularly harassed in any way. While we were cruising the streets in the 1950 Chevy convertible our taxi driver called out to a few girls and I questioned him. He said, “What? It’s my job.” Cuban men think it is their duty to let girls know they’re pretty. So girls, just do as the locals do, and ignore it.
Giving back. Most Cubans don’t have a lot of extra income for luxuries. A pair of jeans still cost 15 CUC and something as simple as a band-aid can be a lot more pricey than you think. But Cubans will never ask or demand you to give them something of yours but will gratefully receive gifts. I wish I had known this before I went on my trip. I made a friend from Seattle who gave her Airbnb host anti-histamines that would have cost well over 50 CUC in Cuba. I was able to give my last host, Ana, a pair of my Teva Premier sandals (we were the same size!) She was so grateful and put them on immediately! It’s the least I could do for a people who embraced us during our stay in Cuba.
A personal perspective on politics. I’ll be honest, I don’t really watch the news and/or particularly political. I used to think “ignorance is bliss” and disregarded any kind of political jargon. But as I get older I realize it is not only my right to know what is going on around the world but my responsibility as a photographer and frequent traveler. I have a tool to help some people see places they have never been to.
After I got back from Cuba I started doing a little more research and was really disappointed by the information I found. Just a few months ago a diplomatic agreement was signed between the US and Cuba and I thought it was a step in the right direction for Cuban-US relations. But now I feel so selfish and ignorant. Americans can now go freely into Cuba while Cubans still cannot travel to our country and/or allowed to take refuge on American soil through the "wet foot, dry foot" policy anymore. And who knows what will happen next now that our country is under new leadership.
And I have a completely new perspective of Che (Ernesto “Che” Guevara) and the popular photo of him seen around the world. The photograph is used as a symbol of counterculture and rebellion but after the Revolución Cubana, h4 became a ruthless leader and executioner (a complete departure from his days of educating and providing healthcare for the people.) This particular occurrence sparked a light in me. I realize how important it is to do your research and educate yourself (because you never know what you might be supporting.) It makes me wonder what other symbols and pop cultural trends I’ve adopted in the past but would never morally support if I knew the truth behind it?
To be honest, I had this faint, eerie feeling the entire time I was there. Cubans do not have freedom of speech (something Americans have been practicing quite fervently lately) and if they don’t like the government, they definitely don’t say it. I think any type of rebellion is met with there is severe punishment. For the most part, everyone obeys the rules (hence, why it is safe for a single girl to walk around by herself at midnight) but do they have any other choice? It was so interesting to be in a country where almost everyone has just enough to get by but not a whole lot more than that. I think it’s something we take for granted as Americans.
I shared a little bit of how I felt on social media and received some really interesting responses. One women’s family endured generations of oppression before they fled the country. Her great-grandfather was a political prisoner for 14 years and was used for human experimentation, her grandfather was shot in the war against Castro, and her uncle was forced into a labor camp for 7 years—all because they opposed the Castro Regime. Another woman said, “I’m truly happy that tourists are experiencing the truth from the inside of my little island” and that “outsiders learn that the Revolution and the image of Che and the Castros are nothing but cheap propaganda; there is no freedom without free thinking. We’ve lack freedom of speech since January 1, 1959.”